Conrad Potter Aiken

(5 August 1889 – 17 August 1973 / Savannah, Georgia)

The Wars And The Unknown Soldier - Poem by Conrad Potter Aiken

I
Dry leaves, soldier, dry leaves, dead leaves;
voices of leaves on the wind that bears them to
destruction,
impassioned prayer, impassioned hymn of delight
of the gladly doomed to die. Stridor of beasts,
stridor of men, praises of lust and battle,
numberless as waves, the waves singing
to the wind that bears them down.

Under Osiris,
him of the Egyptian priests, Osynmandyas the King,
easward into Asia we passed, swarmed over Bactria,
three thousand years before Christ.

The history of war
is the history of mankind.
So many dead:
look at them there in the dark, look at them going,
the longest parade of all, the parade of the dead:
between then and now, seven thousand million dead:
dead on the filed of battle.

The people which is not ready
to guard its gods, and its household gods, with the
sword,
who knows but it will find itself with nothing
save honour to defend - ?

Consider, soldier
whatever name you go by, doughboy, dogface,
marine or tommy. God's mercenary – consider our lot
in the days if the single combat. You have been seen on the
seashore.
In the offshore wind blown backward, a wavecrest
windwhipped and quivering, borne helpless and
briefly
to fall underfoot of an oncoming seawall, foam-
smothered,
once more to recede, wind-thwarted again; thus
deathward
the battle lines whelmed and divided. The darkling
battalions
locked arms in chaos, the bravest, the heroes,
kept in the forefront' and this line once broken,
our army was done for.

II
In the new city of marble and bright stone,
the city named for a captain; in the capital:
under the solemn echoing dome, in the still tomb,
lies an unknown soldier.*

In the brown city,
old and shabby, by the muddy Thames, in the gaunt
avenue
where Romans blessed with Latin the oyster and the
primrose,
the stone shaft speaks of another. Those who pass
bare their heads in the rain, pausing to listen+

Across grey water, red poppies on cliffs and chalk.
Hidden under the arch, in the city of light,
the city beloved of Abelard rests a third,
nameless as those, but the fluttering flame
substituting for a name.

Three unknown soldiers:
three, let us say, out of many. On the proud arch
names shine like stars, the names of battles and
victories;
but never the name of the man, you, the unknown.
Down there runs the river, under dark walls of rock,
parapets of rock, stone steps that green to the water.

There they fished up in the twilight another unknown,
the one they call
L'Inconnue de la Seine
: drowned
hands,
drowned hair, drowned eyes, masked like marble she
listens
to the drip-drop secret of silence; and the pale eyelids
enclose and disclose what they know, the illusion
found like fire under Lethe. Devotion here sainted
the love here deathless. The strong purpose turns
from the daggered lamplight, from the little light to
the lesser,
from stone to stone stepping, from the nex-to-the-lasy
heartbeat and footstep even to the sacred, to the last.

Love: devotion: sacrifice: death: can we call her
unknown
who has not unknown to herself more? Whose love
lives still
as if death itself were alive and divine?

And you, the soldier
you who are dead: is it not so with you?
Love: devotion: sacrifice: death: can we call you
unknown,
you who knew what you did? The soldier is crystal:
crystal of man: clear heart, clear duty, clear purpose.
No soldier can be unknown. Only he is unknown
who is unknown to himself.


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Poem Submitted: Tuesday, April 13, 2010



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